Introducing part-time degrees delivered over just three years has revived the fortunes of Birkbeck, University of London and could do the same for other institutions, its head has claimed.
David Latchman, master of the college, said shorter part-time degree programmes, which usually last at least four years, had been vital to his institution’s success.
For the first time in its 191-year history, Birkbeck this year admitted more part-time undergraduates studying over three years than students studying over four years.
Next year, Professor Latchman expects about 1,100 students to enrol on three-year courses, up from about 850 this year. All courses taught over four years will also be available over three years in 2014-15 – up from just three subjects offered in the shorter format when it was launched in 2010-11.
The new recruitment stream has helped Birkbeck maintain part-time undergraduate enrolments, which across the sector fell by almost half between 2010-11 and this year.
The three-year programmes are attracting different types of students from the mature learners who typically apply to Birkbeck, Professor Latchman told Times Higher Education. “We’re starting to appeal to 18- to 20-year-olds who ask ‘why should I go to university full time and spend my Saturdays stacking shelves in Tesco when I could study in the evening and apply my learning to my employment?’,” he said.
“We are also getting a lot of 21- and 22-year-olds who may have gone straight into work from school, but are now seeing graduates entering the workplace and being promoted ahead of them,” he added.
Part-time degrees over three years are also attractive because those doing the courses are eligible for maintenance loans, worth up to £7,751 a year in London next year, unlike traditional part-time students, Professor Latchman said.
The courses, held in the evenings, are also advertised by Ucas, unlike other part-time courses, which opens Birkbeck up to a wider audience, although such students will count towards its places quota until caps are scrapped in 2015-16.
Sacrificing a social life
But how can a student complete a degree over three years on a part-time basis, sometimes while holding down a full-time job, when others are full time over the same period?
Professor Latchman believes Birkbeck’s three-year cohort are sacrificing socialising. “Part of the experience of going to university is maturing and having a good time – that is what our students are losing,” he said.
Birkbeck has also put many more lectures online to intensify the study experience, he added. Nonetheless, are there enough hours in the day for the three-year students to take classes and remain in full-time work?
Professor Latchman pointed out that the Quality Assurance Agency had scrutinised the courses, and standards cannot be diluted because students will take the same University of London degrees as others.
In fact, those doing the shorter courses are outperforming those studying part time over a longer period, in terms of degree classifications and dropout rates, based on an analysis of the first cohort who graduated last year, he said.
Professor Latchman said other universities may consider following Birkbeck’s lead. “However, what other 190-year-old business has reinvented itself in just four years?”